By Owei Lakemfa
THESE are times people are burdened. When many, with the future appearing bleak due to partial or full lockdowns, need help to get by. This is when religious leaders should be praying for all, or at least their followers, and strengthening them.
Yet these are also the times some clerics are sowing fear, making near-stupid predictions, preaching end time and telling the vulnerable that this is the Passover when the angel of death will be out and only the children of the Almighty would be saved. That those who want to be saved need to sow seeds and religiously pay offerings and tithes even if the places of worship are closed down.
So a number of pastors and general overseers are sending messages on the social media, not on how their members can be safe or assisted, but how they should pay their weekly offerings and monthly tithes online. To such preachers, the issue is not salvation or how to contribute to the wellbeing of their members, but how money can continue to flow into their pockets. Their message to the congregation seems to be: ‘Come, you who are heavily laden, and I will add to your yoke’. This is not new, for even in the old times, according to Prophet Amos (Chapter 2:6), there were those who “sold the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes”.
But even in these times that try our faith and test our commitment, there are outstanding religious leaders ready to sacrifice their lives to protect those under their care. One of such was the Very Rev. Sister Henrietta Alokha of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and principal of the Chapel of Bethlehem Girls College, Abule-Ado, Lagos. On March 15, while the over 300 students were holding mass, they noticed an unusual smoke. As a shepherd, she instructed the students to move towards the backdoor of the chapel in an orderly way to ensure there was no stampede. There followed a loud explosion flattering most of the school and damaging over 50 buildings in the area.
Once outside, there was a quick roll call and two of the students were missing. Despite the dangers, Sister Alokha returned to the buildings to look for the missing students. While returning, one of the roofs collapsed, killing her. All the students survived. It is the kind of leadership and clear direction Sister Alokha exhibited that is lacking in our body polity. We run a political entity in which leadership is reduced to a sense of self-importance, clothed in overflowing rich attire, blowing siren, sharing national resources and feeding crass nepotism.
True leadership is the type exhibited by South Korea which while China was being ravaged and with not a single case of infection, had prepared at least 10,000 virus-testing kits and warehoused large medical supplies. We may not have the resources of a United States which can foot a $2 trillion-dollar stimulus package, but we should not perform less than our sister African country, Kenya which has far fewer resources than us.
Kenya is effecting huge cash-transfers to the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable members of society, executing immediate tax relief for low-income earners, carrying out wide tax reduction, immediate VAT reduction and large scale payment of local debts, while the private sector is also encouraged to clear all outstanding payments among themselves. It is also introducing debt relief for micro, small and medium enterprises, MSMES; the immediate recruitment of additional health workers, reducing interest rates and getting commercial banks to directly support borrowers that are distressed as a result of the economic effects of the pandemic.
These are some of the measures Nigeria should be taking. Yes, a litre of fuel was reduced from N145 to N125, but it is not fundamental as oil has become very cheap all over the world; in any case, many parts of the country are under lockdown and interstate travel is discouraged.
For Nigeria, this is the time to cut VAT and pay ‘trader money’ of at least N20,000 as many Nigerians are experiencing massive income loss. A serious leadership would also have worked out how to financially cushion those who will lose their jobs such as in the aviation industry. To me, it does not make sense for the Buhari government to reduce the 2020 overhead budget which will mean less money in circulation, rather than cut interest payments on external borrowings. It is also not logical to me that at a time the international stock exchange has taken a dive, the Central Bank is devaluing the Naira in the name of adjustment.
While Nigerian legislators are in the process of sharing 400 exotic Toyota Camry 2020 model utility vehicles with an average cost of $50,000, the Kenyan leadership is implementing voluntary salary cuts to help increase the funds available to fight the virus. Under the scheme, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto cut their salaries by 80 per cent; ministers and chief administrative secretaries by 30 per cent and principal secretaries by 20 per cent.
While it is salutary that some leading businessmen and corporate organisations have raised funds to assist in the war against the virus, this would amount to throwing good money away if given to our political leaders and officials who do not have a good record of handling funds. These are leaders under whose watch records of recovered funds looted by the late General Sani Abacha cannot be satisfactorily tendered. Rather, the donors can use such funds to directly build lasting structures like hospitals, functional and well-funded research laboratories, pharmaceutical companies that can produce essential drugs, and constructing medical and nursing schools as well as awarding scholarship for medical studies.
Leadership is about openness and transparency. If the British government can openly disclose that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Crown Prince Charles tested positive, what is the need for secrecy in the fact that some aides of President Muhammadu Buhari tested positive?
While we cannot blame the Nigerian leadership for the advent of the virus, we can call it out on its spread and the apparent unpreparedness to contain it. As at last week, there was still talk of us building capacity to carry out some 500 tests daily while there are countries carrying out 10,000. Also, the media last week carried claims of people in Abuja wanting to get tested being frustrated and tossed amongst government agencies.
In making a general criticism of leadership in the country and demanding an improvement, it is important to thank the Lagos State government under Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu for stepping in to fill the vacuum created by an unresponsive leadership and giving hope to Nigerians.